For many in South Carolina government, allowing two recognized hate groups to hold dueling rallies against a charged backdrop of alleged racially motivated killings and the removal of South Carolina's Confederate flag doesn't seemed like the best idea — at least in hindsight. At a Statehouse hearing last Tuesday, senators and law enforcement officials expressed their dismay over the situation that occurred July 18, when state officials granted the New Black Panther Party and the Ku Klux Klan permits to rally on the same day at overlapping times.
The Black Panthers group rallied early in the day on the north steps, facing where the Confederate flag used to be. The KKK and other affiliated groups overlapped later in the day on the opposite side, facing the statue of Strom Thurmond. When the two groups inevitably mixed, mayhem ensued. Fights broke out as KKK members and affiliated groups flaunted "Heil Hitler" salutes and taunted African Americans with vulgarities. Law enforcement officials said they were confronted with one of the most volatile, difficult situations they had seen over the course of decades of service.
Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, chairman of the Statehouse Committee that has purview over such things, used the hearing to question the wisdom of the two rallies and to find out if a similar situation could be prevented in the future. He and others seemed unsatisfied with the answers that came from Nolan Wiggins, a director at the Department of Administration, which oversees and controls the Statehouse grounds.
Wiggins told Peeler's committee that there's little the state can do to control groups who want to protest on capitol grounds. Generally, they don't even need to apply, he said, given that the First Amendment protects the group's right to assemble and the grounds are public property. However, Peeler told reporters after the hearing that he didn't think Wiggins and others did much of anything to prevent a dustup from happening, such as asking the groups if one would voluntarily come at a different time or day. "That's where the common sense component comes in," Peeler said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was also critical of the dual protests. "We had a situation dumped on us," he said. "I'm here to question the wisdom to allow two groups, two rival hate groups, to be on the Statehouse grounds at the same time. There was nothing peaceful about that assembly by either group. That whole event was designed to cause chaos and destroy property." Lott went on to praise the officers for how they handled the situation.
Peeler said he would work with the Department of Administration on either legislation or new regulations that could empower the state to control the process for using the grounds.
Just five people were arrested amidst the lawlessness, but the state plans to arrest more. State Law Enforcement Department Chief Mark Keel said that officers were overwhelmed and undermanned; simply put, they're weren't enough cops on hand to make a significant number of arrests. Officials are reviewing videos from the day, Keel said, as people fought, threw bottles at police, and smashed car windows.
Wiggins, the official responsible for issuing the Statehouse ground permits, didn't do himself any favors with the committee when he said the state had denied a permit for a third group requesting space on the grounds on the same day.
Longtime liberal activist and member of the S.C. Progressive Network Brett Bursey told the committee they shouldn't be too eager to revisit the rules regarding protests. He and others have sued the state in past years for unfairly discriminating against minorities and others who wanted to rally, he said, adding that what constitutes a hate group is in the eye of the beholder.
Bursey said legislators shouldn't overreact to "a rare instance of pending doom" and should avoid "[changing] the laws that are working so well."
This article originally ran in the Free Times.